First thing’s first. Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage yesterday should be celebrated. On the heels of similar pronouncements by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, this marks the first time that a sitting US President has taken such a bold stance in favour of marriage equality.
However, just as light can be considered both a wave and a particle in quantum mechanics, every announcement by an elected official exhibits a similar duality. Was Obama’s decision motivated primarily by principle or by politics?
I believe there were elements of both. On the surface, a stronger case can be made for principle. Although most recent polls show a slim majority or plurality of Americans in favour of legalized gay marriage, it is still an incredibly touchy subject. And with Mitt Romney, Obama’s soon-to-be-confirmed opponent in November’s Presidential election, railing against the evils of not just gay marriage but even civil unions, one would think that Obama could safely have continued speaking favourably of such watered down compromises in order to pacify the left — who after all have virtually nowhere else to go — without overly alienating the right. So the fact that Obama rejected this strategy suggests that he acted for reasons other than mere electoral advantage.
However, according to administration officials, Obama was already planning to come out in favour of gay marriage in a matter of months — i.e. closer to the election. Biden’s announcement simply forced his hand. If this is true, the Obama campaign must have seen some kind of political benefit in backing gay marriage — probably as a means of mobilizing the base and portraying the President as strong and decisive.
In fact, if Obama can be accused of cynicism and political gaming at all, it is not for the announcement he made yesterday, but for his failure to do so earlier. The President almost certainly supported gay marriage all along, as he admitted while running for Illinois state Senate in 1996 – back when it was far more of a liability. The fact that, in the intervening years, he stuffed his true beliefs back in the closet (so to speak) reflects a concern that they might have jeopardized his ever-escalating political ambitions.
But different times and different campaign strategies have changed all that. Politics and principle have finally converged to compel the President to make the right choice. This does not mean that legalized gay weddings will immediately sprout up in all fifty states. But the cultural shift is undeniable. Obama has done something without precedent, and it falls on officials in all three branches of government and at federal and state levels, as well as on individual Americans, to act. Will they one day look back upon their behaviour with shame, like those who resisted women’s suffrage and desegregation? Or will they join with the current of history and stand up for equality?
Obama has made his decision. Romney has made his. Let’s see how these next few months play out.